Baseball legends are recognized at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Football greats are honored at the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And then there are the iconic athletes who excelled in playing or coaching basketball at yeshiva day schools. They are honored too, in the Yeshiva High School Alumni Basketball Association Hall of Fame, which exists online and in its members’ hearts.
This year’s inductee for excellence in coaching is Teaneck’s own Irwin Robert Kaplan.
Mr. Kaplan, who was born and raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Elementary and High School. “I was not a great student, or that well behaved, “ he said, but he played basketball there, first on the junior varsity team and then on the championship varsity basketball team. “My parents tolerated me playing sports because they knew where I was,” he said.
Mr. Kaplan graduated RJJ in 1966. City College of New York accepted all applicants then, but his grades were so poor that he had to start in the night school program, as a probationary student. “After my first three test grades were Fs, I decided it was time to grow up and buckle down. I ended up being an honor student,” he said. And it worked. Mr. Kaplan ended up graduating magna cum laude. He also played basketball for two years on the CCNY team.
Mr. Kaplan’s coaching career also began during this time. “When I was 19 the Young Israel of Manhattan, along with the Educational Alliance — one of the first JCCs in America — asked me to run a youth and sports program. When they asked, I looked around and said to myself ‘Me? They want me??? Are they crazy?’” The program grew to include more than 120 kids and his good reputation grew as well. “I really enjoyed directing and coaching basketball,” he said. He was there from 1969 through 1975.
Mr. Kaplan also fell in love with a girl named Ruby Hirschman from Union City. They married in 1971 and moved to Monsey, N.Y. Eventually, they had three children — Ilana, Mordechai, and Daniella. Their two daughters live in Englewood; their son made aliyah.
Ruby went to a meeting for new parents at the Adolf Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland — aka ASHAR. At that meeting, someone said that the school’s new basketball team needed a parent coach. “My wife volunteered me,” Mr. Kaplan said. “I coached for 14 years and loved every minute of it.”
Heshy Fromen, who lives in Englewood now, was the captain of Mr. Kaplan’s 1983-84 ASHAR basketball team. Mr. Kaplan was an incredible role model for him and his teammates, Mr. Fromen said. “You are at an impressionable age and Coach Kaplan really helped us become motivated not only in basketball, but in how to be a good team player and a good person.”
The Kaplans moved to Teaneck in 1986 The Frisch School in Paramus asked Mr. Kaplan to coach its boys varsity basketball team, and he was ecstatic. “I could not believe that someone was going to pay me to do something that I loved,” he said.
Stephen Balsam, who lived in Teaneck then and in Florida now, was a member of Mr. Kaplan’s 1988 championship varsity team, which beat Manhattan’s Ramaz School in Madison Square Garden. According to Mr. Balsam, “Coach knew how to get the most out of each and every player. He was supportive and encouraging, and led us to an incredible championship season.”
For 21 years, Mr. Kaplan worked for the Equitable Life Assurance Society. He also owned and operated Camp IBA — the Israel Basketball Academy — from 1994 through 2006. He was the Torah Academy of Bergen County’s athletic director, and he taught both physical education and a business course there for 20 years. One of the many students whose lives Coach Bobby, as they affectionately called him at TABC, was Yehoshua Zirman, who lives in Teaneck and graduated in 2014. “Bobby not only gave me the tools needed to excel on the basketball court, but also the tools to excel in my career and family life,” Mr. Zirman said. “He is a true people person and a legendary basketball coach.”
Mr. Kaplan has written two books about playing basketball and being an all-around good person; “Bball Basic for Kids” came out in 2012 and “Hoopster: Don’t Be A Bully” followed in 2015.
He is getting the award because of the nearly 1,000 games he has coached — his teams won several championships — but that is not what is most important to him. He has coached because, he said, “I just wanted to make a positive dent in kids’ lives.” And it seems that he really has.
The organization that is giving him this award, the YABA, Yeshiva High School Alumni Basketball Association, was the brainchild of four gentleman who love reliving their glory times on the basketball court in high school. They are Ira Bader of Forest Hills, who graduated from Brooklyn Torah Academy in the 1950s; Jeffrey Krantz of Staten Island, who graduated from The Yeshiva of Flatbush in 1972; Andy Weitzen of Manhattan, who graduated from RJJ in the 70s; and Pete Kessel of Staten Island, who graduated from JEC in the 70s. “There are some guys who might not have the best memories about school, but they all have great memories about their team and teammates,” Mr. Krantz said. He also said that at some reunion dinners, “We actually have to ask the guys to leave” — dinner was long over and the waiters wanted to go home — “because some of them haven’t seen in each other in 30 years and they have a lot to catch up on.”
The YABA raises money for many charities, because no one who “works” for the organization gets paid. “We have given to the Houston hurricane relief fund, the Parklawn Chabad in Florida, many charities in Israel, and this year they will be giving to Project Renewal, the organization that matches organ donors with recipients,” Mr. Krantz said. “We want to give back for all that basketball and those memories have given us.”
This year’s dinner will be held on Thursday, May 3, at the Mansion in Lawrence, N.Y.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to YABAUSA.org.